“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” –This awesome quote was spoken by Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison after 28 years of (often brutal) incarsaration. Mandela was elected as the first black President of South Africa, yet rather than enacting victors vengeance upon the former governments he chose reconciliation and peace.
This was unpopular amongst many black South Africans who wanted revenge and to “give the white man a taste of his own medicine”, establishing with his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.
We need truth to heal, things brought from the darkness into the light, and people need to hear an apology to enable reconciliation to happen.
This committee was incredibly gracious, granting amnastes to many from the previous administration, most notably Adriaan Vlok, a racist government minister who had overseen an attempt to bomb the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches and planned the assassination of some senior anti-aparthied activists, later as a forgiven person he ended up publically apologising and washing the feet of Frank Chikane who Vlok had tried to assassinate.
I read these stories and I am inspired by the grace, mercy and forgiveness shown by heroes of the faith such as Mandela and Tutu, and yet I look at my life, particularly some of the nastiness my family and I endured from some of the Churchy folk in my last parish, and I struggle to forgive and that there is bitterness lurking within my heart.
I think all of us know that forgiveness is a good idea, that is until we have something we have to forgive and then it feels really tough.
Forgiveness too is an on-going process, a continual journey, a choice to live not in resentment and vindictiveness. I can forgive momentarily but when I return to the offence in my mind it is like a scab that can be made to bleed again.
There are numerous truisms that echo around social media reminding us that “resentment is the acid the destroys that which it is carried in” or “bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Yet, like all such clichés forgiveness is easier said than done, and something I found really hard, especially people who really hurt and betrayed me, or were deliberately nasty to my wife.
After we had been back in Poole a little while I was sat on the sofa with my wife, and somehow some of the pain of the last parish came up, “you still really hate XXX don’t you” she said, she was right, although I was ashamed to admit it.
This made me feel pretty wretched. Stories like that of Mandela and Tutu just made me feel really condemned, I felt like a really rubbish Christian, but the truth is I had not forgiven this person, not really and truly.
I knew what I ought to do, but inside I was really hurt and agrieved at what I felt was unjust, forgiveness sometimes can feel like justice denied. I was talking to someone who was around Christian circles and was talking about Karma, I gently questioned this, and she said “sometimes grace feels too difficult at times, especially when you are angry!” -She actually was very profound, grace is getting what we do not deserve, we like to be a recipient of grace but a dispenser of it to those who have hurt us feels at times like a challenge that is beyond our human capabilities -although not beyond the capacity of the Holy Spirit!
I can be quite good at forgiving if it feels like people are genuinely remorseful and their reprentence feels genuine, but if there is no word of sorry, and you’re not sure if they will do it again, then I really struggle.
Allana sent me a thing on facebook (we are a romantic pair aren’t we!) which said: “Life is easier when you accept the apology you never received”, sometimes we do not get an apology nor even the person ever admitting that they did anything wrong.
Yet sometimes we need to express our pain and frustration and hurt, when often we get shut up, literally in the case of Mandela.
Mandela got no apology, well perhaps one twenty eight years too late, I wonder the battle that must have gone on in his heart and mind those long nights locked in his cell at Robbin Island.
St. John of the Cross talks of the ‘dark night of the soul’ where we have to come face to face with all we would rather avoid within ourselves and choose how we respond.
I discovered that this was something I had to leave at the cross of Christ –the problem was I kept retrieving it. Yet, rather than feeling guilty, I have discovered that God is extremely patient with me, and walks with me as I try again to walk in forgiveness and freedom.
In this I have come to realise that healing and restoration is rarely a quick fix but an on-going choice, something I have come to believe is impossible in our own strength but a miracle of God’s work in us.
Too often we feel like somehow forgiving people is ‘letting them off’ and that is somehow saying that “what they did, and how it made us feel, did not matter”.
I think this is a false premise of forgiveness, rather it stems from knowing that God says that he loves us and wants us to be free. God cares about our mental health and our well-being, helps us to allow us to put pain behind us rather than let it blight our future.
Unforgiveness can cripple our mental health and damage our relationship with God. Yet, in admitting our pain and hurt, naming it, being honest with our feelings, and bringing it into the light, we allow God to come into those places and bring his healing balm.
I also discovered that existing resentments is like a magnet for attracting more and more pain and bitterness.
Forgiveness is costly and difficult, but when we forgive we glimpse something of the character of God who forgives us.
I wonder if one of the greatest obsticles to the growth of the Kingdom is the backlog of unforgiveness in both individuals and corporately, indeed the adage that ‘hurt people, hurt people’ is often true, and unforgiveness can become never ending cycles, with people never sorting out their baggage with God or one another.
We know that sadly individuals and groups do not always behave well towards one another: egos, entitlement and empires can rise up, misunderstanding occur, people have different priorites and view points, characters clash, human-beings are flawed and sinful, and things are sometimes handled badly.
Nor is forgiveness placing ourselves back in unhealthy or damaging relationships, and the new relationship might have to look different, but we can still call an amnasty and end hostility, both outward and internally within us.
Yet, (and although not always possible), I believe God does not just want to see a peace treaty brokered but instead a miracle of grace and reconciliation in our lives. I thought about repair within the human body, and the place that which was broken the new join becomes the strongest part.
Another display of unity and restoration came in the unlikely guise of the Springbok Rugby, often seen as a “White Mans Sport”, but Mandela wore their shirt and supported the national team in the World Cup 1995, and forging a friendship with the white Captain François Pienaar who asked Mandela to be the Godfather of two of his children.
Many of the black south africans wanted Mandela to ban the games, or change the top, they certainly never expected him to wear it himself, this symbol of aparthied become an emblum of reconciliation.
This is a gesture of the person representing the wronged community reaching out, not just half way, but meeting the other where they were at.
I believe the local Church in many areas, like South Africa, needs its own truth and reconciliation commission, resentments left unspoken often seeth within us, and communities are far from united.
Sometimes, we need to meet our Christian brothers and sisters where they are at, and sometimes even make sacrifices and do the harder and tougher thing. What might wearing the Springbok top be for your Christian Community?
In my previous parish of Kingswood a revival had taken place under John Wesley, and yet all the way up the high street there were different churches of a slightly different flavour baring testimony to Christians falling out.
More recently, I have been sadden to hear of a larger Church ‘guzzumping’ a smaller one with running a project that they had been working on; a Vicar decided to run an event at the same time as the Church down the road was doing the same thing (even nicked the wording on their flyer!); Others can send one another combatative emails or letters and it is so sad to see the bits of the body of Christ bump, burn and bruise each other.
How can we be like Nelson Mandela’s and live in a different way, practicing forgiveness, grace and Kingdom generousity?
As with all relationships it presents a challenge as it requires and is reliant on someone elses response, but if we see relationships as a bridge, the question is have we reached out beyond our half with outstretched hand to their bit?
I was hugely challenged by reading the story of Corrie Ten Boom, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazi’s for hiding Jews. At this camp her sister, Betsy, died.
As she was talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, she came face to face with a guard from the camp. In an instant all these awful memories resurfaced. Yet she prayed that God would give her the strength to forgive, and she held out her arm to this man, and she said as they shook hands she felt the power of God flow through her.
It is so, so, painful at times both for us individually and corporately to forgive, and even harder to stretch out our hand to those who have caused us pain, I am a work in progress with this (far from sorted), but I do believe it is the only hope for us as individuals, for the Church and for the World.